Le Gai Savoir

Le Gai Savoir

“Paris is a very old story,” Henry James wrote in 1878–so old, in fact, that it’s hard to write about it without falling into clichés about chestnut trees, couture, freedom and


“Paris is a very old story,” Henry James wrote in 1878–so old, in fact, that it’s hard to write about it without falling into clichés about chestnut trees, couture, freedom and l’amour. But making the subject of writers in Paris–in particular, American writers–a fresh literary experience rather than an old chestnut is exactly what the various authors in the Library of America’s marvelous new anthology manage to do.

Called–you’ve got it–Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, and edited by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, whose sojourn there was amiably recounted in Paris to the Moon, the Library of America’s wide-ranging collection also lives up to the word Phillip Lopate (anthologist par excellence) gave it in advance praise: tasty. Seventy pilgrims hold out to the reader a portion of their dream of a different world, tidbits of delight and wisdom that extend from Benjamin Franklin’s acute observation, “Travelling is one Way of lengthening Life, at least in Appearance,” to Dorothea Tanning’s comment, circa 200 years later, that one can’t walk along the Boulevard Montparnasse without running into some former denizen eager to gab about Hemingway or Man Ray’s Kiki, “sociable spooks full of droll stories but spooks all the same.”

Yes, there is something spooky about the subject of Americans in Paris, since it’s inevitably connected not just to a certain predictability but to a kind of longing. “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris,” quipped Oliver Wendell Holmes with reason. (Bad Americans go to America, Oscar Wilde replied.) We depend on our relationship to Paris, however vexed, for some definition of ourselves, even when we define ourselves in angry opposition. (Witness the recent furor over “freedom fries.”) “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” as Henry James knew, “and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.” Gertrude Stein, of course, was more comfortable with the way Americans often think of themselves as citizens of somewhere else. “America is my country,” she said, “and Paris is my hometown.”

Paris, then, represents something just out of reach to Americans self-conscious about their rough-and-ready country, long on ingenuity and short on style. (In the Luxembourg Gardens, William Faulkner stands amazed. When the band plays Massenet or Berlioz, children hush and taxi drivers stop their cars.) Paris is a way of life, a sensibility, a force and a pleasure not found at home. “This book is a history of the worlds Americans have made in the city where they have gone to be happy,” Gopnik writes in his preface. “It is in part, therefore, the history of an illusion.” But expatriates (and even tourists) are a lonely lot, relishing their loneliness even while they protest against it, as Hemingway does hauntingly in his memoir A Moveable Feast. Strolling along the Seine, with “the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars,” he recalls, “I could never be lonely along the river.” But he is.

A later visitor, Paul Zweig, transforms his loneliness into a religious discipline until he conquers the language, much “as if I had crossed a line through a membrane and found myself in a new, unheard-of place full of intense forms that were almost familiar, almost ordinary.” Most Americans, though, remain safe in the cocoon of their American-ness. “The Americans in Montparnasse, sitting at their tables in front of Le Sélect and talking at each other, reminded me of monkeys on a raft,” A.J. Liebling observes. “They were not in the water at all.” By and large, Americans do not master French. “Paris remains a kind of literary laboratory,” Gopnik suggests, “where American style gets made and proffered in refined form.” This is especially true for the writers gathered in this book.

Though their responses are arranged in rough chronological order, these writers almost seem to converse with one another about Paris and la mode, literary and otherwise, they find there. Similarly, the reader enters into constant dialogue with them and of course will like some of them better than others, or wonder why this one appears, not that. Why E.E. Cummings on Josephine Baker and not, say, Janet Flanner, whose witty reportage from Paris as Genêt, The New Yorker‘s Paris correspondent, helped create for Americans the ambience of the Jazz Age abroad? (Gopnik does choose, instead, Flanner’s terrific report on the French reaction to Franklin Roosevelt’s death, more important for its moving account of women prisoners returning the next day from Ravensbrück “dressed like scarecrows, in what had been given them at camp, clothes taken from the dead of all nationalities.” De Gaulle wept to see them.) Why Richard Harding Davis on cafe life, or the prolix Harriet Beecher Stowe? What, no William Dean Howells, no Mavis Gallant, no American accounts of the “phony war” in 1940?

Such quibbles are inevitable and a measure of the volume’s success. Anthologists must leave out more than they include–it’s the nature of the beast–and here what’s omitted is secondary to unexpected treats: poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Wilbur, song lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and Cole Porter, excerpts from the memoirs of P.T. Barnum (who, predictably, finds the French impressible) and jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Longfellow sports a glossy French hat, rolled up at the sides; Diana Vreeland humanizes Coco Chanel; James Baldwin goes to jail; and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, feeling un-chic, buys a black dress. Charles Lindbergh breathlessly evokes (in the present tense) his landing at Le Bourget airport on the night of May 21, 1927, and his reminiscence is followed by Waverly Root’s description of that same night, when foreign correspondents ferociously competed for the six phone booths to break the story. Langston Hughes shares digs with a poor Russian girl; Dawn Powell finds Paris a good place to be a dope fiend; Abigail Adams, unusually fastidious, says it is “the very dirtiest place I ever saw.”

According to Gopnik, images of Paris cluster around two poles, “one essentially bourgeois, the other bohemian.” The connoisseurs of la vie de bohème–among them Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and that old rogue, Ben Franklin–have come for the drink and the dazzle, the food, fornication and the Folies Bergères. The others are the sober types such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Adams or students like Randolph Bourne. Obviously, though, the two camps mix and match: Malcolm Cowley is both, or at least that’s what he thinks, and James Gallatin, the diplomat’s son, learns, as he puts it, that “Paris is indeed the paradise of young men.” Also, Americans come to Paris as merchandisers (the impresario George Catlin) and as philistines (which is how Mark Twain, in the excerpt included from The Innocents Abroad, presents himself). “How much francs is in money,” asks Lorelei in Anita Loos’s sly Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And they come to pay their respects. Scholar George Ticknor meets Chateaubriand, a man with “the heart of a poet, whose family has been exterminated by one revolution, and who has himself been sacrificed to another.”

If Ralph Waldo Emerson, quintessential New Englander, calls Paris a “loud modern New York of a place,” he too is swept away by its ordered beauty. In the Jardin des Plantes, he finds a connection between himself and all aspects of nature as only Emerson (and Whitman) can: “I feel the centipede in me–cayman, carp, eagle, & fox. I am moved by strange sympathies.” Then, at Père Lachaise–he is truly open to all things–Emerson astutely reads the tombstones. “Not separating flesh from spirit, the French write ‘Here lies Augustus’; the Americans, ‘Here lies the body of….'”

By and large, though, images of Paris seem also given to recollection and its wispy companion, nostalgia. One simply can’t get away from the spooks, even though the anthology largely (and mercifully) avoids them. But nostalgia is an unavoidable part of the memory industry, especially when memories gather around the sensual and evanescent: a smell, a season, a quality of pearly light never forgotten. Writing in 1934, Edith Wharton remembers when she first moved to Paris in 1907 and the thirteen years she spent there that still “rise up to meet me whenever I turn the corner of the street.” Even Gertrude Stein, the least nostalgic of all writers, recalls the tender little trees of a bygone Montmartre. Fortunately, though, to represent the exuberant 1930s (itself a cliché) Gopnik selects the diaries of Sherwood Anderson and the manic poet Harry Crosby (“dancing in the streets all last night, grotesque couples whirling madly about…while paper lanterns swing to and fro between the drab buildings silhouetted against a lemon-colored sky”), as well as a 1929 postcard from Hart Crane whose immediacy sums up a giddy decade: “absinthe, music, promenades, oysters, sherry, aspirin, pictures, Sapphic heiresses, editors, books, sailors. And How!” Then there is Scott Fitzgerald’s story, “Babylon Revisited,” in which the worn-out Charlie Wales, bohemian manqué, realizes too late that the snow of 1929 was real.

And in a remarkable piece by John Dos Passos, we get something far tougher than nostalgia. Returning to Montmartre in 1937, he remembers long-ago Paris from the very real perspective of the Popular Front, Léon Blum, anti-Semitism and the Spanish Civil War. Everywhere he hears story after story of atrocities, curious that they “mirror, instead of the events they purport to describe, the extent of the hatred of the people that tell them.”

Obviously, Paris is no stranger to violence or war, and Americans reckon with that too. When Nathaniel Hawthorne has a nosebleed, he comments with typical gallows humor that “my blood must be reckoned among the rivers of human gore which have been shed in Paris, and especially on the Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine used to stand.” American minister to France in 1869, Elihu Washburne is in Paris during the siege, and as Paul Zweig says of the city in 1956, “Paris was only a tank ride from Budapest.” But Gopnik ends his collection before the late 1960s partly because, as he explains, it marked the end of something: “1968, and the ‘events’ of May, was the last time that Paris was indisputably the center of the world,” he writes, a statement sure to please consumers of freedom fries, though I doubt they’ll be reading this book. If they do, they’ll understand that Americans in Paris–and many other Americans too–carry a dual citizenship: Paris is my hometown, America is my country. Like it or not, Paris is very much part of the American psyche, assuming we can still refer to such a thing.

But as Henry James perspicaciously observes, “the moment certainly does not seem very well chosen for inviting the world to come to Paris to amuse itself. The world is too much occupied with graver cares.” James is right, especially now; how can we deny it? Yet Gopnik has a point: To the Americans there (even the disgruntled ones), Paris represents an ode to joy, the serious kind that embraces loneliness, longing and the hope of a better world. “The city gives you the feeling of being something stable and permanent in a changing world of violence,” observes Dos Passos. That seems to summarize the appeal of the horse chestnuts, perennially blooming, the unselfconscious lovers and those tender little trees.

Or of the huge and glassy Gare de Lyon, which M.F.K. Fisher celebrates (sans nostalgia) in true romantic fashion. “No other railroad station in the world manages so mysteriously to cloak with compassion the anguish of departure and the dubious ecstasies of return and arrival,” she writes with affection in one of Gopnik’s final sections. “It comes down,” she concludes, “to a question of where one really chooses to be, and for how long.” The most apt metaphor for Paris itself–and of the Americans there, who rush in and out, dreaming their next meal will taste of violets–this wondrous station, a tribute to a belle époque, battered, restored and still graceful, is a place she can leave without sadness, believing she can return, which Americans always do.

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